Saturday, October 20, 2007

10 favorite albums #8: MARVIN GAYE--What's Going On, Tamla/Motown, 1971

Marvin Gaye was the bravest man in Motown. A mainstay of the Detroit-based record company's soul-music hit-making machine he helped turn black music into the "sound of young America." Turning the bright, unthreatening Motown pop sound, favorite of African-Americans, into the favorite of urban white Americans was a kind of miracle, and along with Barry Gordy and Lamont Dozier and Norman Whitfield and the whole roster of producers, musicians and singers, Marvin Gaye was a miracle maker.

I myself had a tremendous boyhood crush on Motown's Miss Diana Ross, though I'm not entirely sure my desire to sing along with "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me" in 1968 wasn't some nascent draq-queen stirring in my gay boy soul.

Marvin was brave because in 1970 he turned his back on the hit-making machine and began to self-produce his heart out, creating a concept album on the troubled state of America. By all accounts he struggled to convince the label to release the music, and only after its first single was released and started roaring up the charts did the album become a viable entity.

Gone were the happy love songs. Gone were the sad love songs. Gone were the songs for teenage heartache, or teenage flirtation, or teenage sexuality. Instead Marvin delivered an album of rage and grief and spirit and hope: What's Going On.

America was heavy on Marvin Gaye's mind. From the opening lyrics of the title song, "Mother, mother, there's too many of you crying. Brother, brother, brother, there's too many of you dying. You know we've got to find a way, to bring more lovin' here today. Father, father, father, we don't need to escalate; You see, war is not the answer, For only love can conquer hate..." Marvin's mind is clear. The Vietnam war, then raging, needed to end.

Gaye goes on to address unemployment and social disillusionment ("What's Happening Brother"), drug addiction ("Flyin' High (In The Friendly Sky)"), ecological crisis (years ahead of Al Gore in "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)"), and urban crisis ("Inner City Blues"). Sprinkled between, though not at all as a happy ending, are calls for faith ("God Is Love," "Wholy Holy"), calls to safeguard the future ("Save the Children") and a rumination on the healing power of love and solidarity ("Right On").

While Gaye used the same Motown studio musicians, including the strings and the choruses and the bells, the scratchy guitars and the conga drums, he turned out something new and revelatory. Alternating between worry, bitter resignation, fear and yet determination to survive, his songs encapsulated the spirit of the times like no other music. It was the problem of the seventies: would the awakening of the sixties bear fruit of change or be snuffed out in darkness and despair.

I don't remember the first time I heard What's Going On. Surely in Chicago the record was ubiquitous. The gym teacher responsible for social dancing at my junior high had a penchant for Motown and surely, if not perversely, "Mercy Mercy Me" joined the Four Tops "Still Waters Run Deep (Peace)" as crowd-pleasing hits. I have memories, fortunately, only for the music, not the clutch of some sweaty-palmed female classmate's forced embrace. Oddly I never owned the album on vinyl, and so never knew its depth, or its lesser-known numbers, until the 1980s when the death of 1960s optimism became complete, when I bought an early CD reissue.

Several CD generations later, I thoroughly recommend the 2-disc deluxe edition, issued in 2001 (prophetically on the cusp of our new post-9/11 era of war and tragedy). The 2-disc set includes the original album as released, plus a version of the entire album in its preliminary form demonstrating the Motown producers' incredible ear for a hit as the final product is just sweetened up so much better than the original mix. Plus there's a live set of most of the tunes, and the original singles issued before the album itself. Well worth the couple extra bucks.

The songs on What's Going On have been covered a million times by black musicians, white musicians, jazz musicians, singers, you name it. The original remains the best though many are worth a listen. It's just only in Marvin's versions are the emotions so raw and the despair so heartfelt. High among my favorite covers is Aretha Franklin's version of "Wholly Holy" on her live gospel set of 1972, Amazing Grace (itself reissued on an extended CD version).

Marvin opened the gate for Motown's next act as a socially-conscious record label. Especially in producer Norman Whitfield's extraordinary work for the label, Motown's repertoire became much more complex. To imagine the Temptations, for instance, gone from sugary bubble gum to politically-charged psychedelia, one has to remember the times and the trajectory that Marvin so bravely travelled. Marvin's sad death at the hands of his father in 1984 is the music's tragic coda.

"Love can conquer hate everytime..."

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